Flood-Gates worry top cable exex

ANAHEIM — The only thing that the three cable industry power players gathered as panelists for the opening general session of the 1997 Western Show were able to agree on fully Wednesday morning was that Microsoft chairman Bill Gates must not be permitted to gain the kind of monopolistic foothold in cable that he has managed to score in the software world.

“I’m not saying beware Bill Gates,” insisted Leo Hindery, prexy and CEO on Tele-Communications, Inc., “but beware closed systems. We can’t allow anything in our business that retards choice. We want to be Bill’s partner, not his download.”

“So in other words,” chimed in Barry Diller, Home Shopping Networks chairman and future CEO of USA Networks Inc., “beware Bill Gates … (Gates) wants to play the same role in this convergence that he has in making the world a Windows world.”

Added Time Warner vice chairman Ted Turner: “Any time you have too much power in any one place, it’s not healthy for anybody … But we’re not about to let one maker of hardware or software get in and control everything. This industry will not allow for a closed system. If we do, we should all just turn over our future to Microsoft.”

There was less concurrence during the session, moderated by “NBC Nightly News” anchorman and sometime MSNBC contributor Tom Brokaw, as to whether the rabid dealmaking in the telecommunications industry that heated up 1997 will continue during 1998 and beyond.

Hindery essentially broke ranks with Turner and Diller on this point, believing that 1997 was “the year of the fix,” with some 60 deals peripherally related to the industry getting made and the cable industry growing increasingly consolidated.

“Eighty percent of cable subscribers are now in the hands of six companies, and 85% of my programming expense as a cable operator comes from seven programming combinations,” pointed out Hindery. “I see 1998 as being more the year of the alliance than the year of deals.”

Turner didn’t see it that way, believing that 1998 will bring more big deals.”I think during the next 10 years, you’re going to see more change in the telecommunications business than you have in the previous 30,” Turner noted.

Diller took the middle ground, forecasting a changing industry based on common ground. “As we get more ties binding each player to each player, we will have fewer opportunities and motivations to bash each other,” he said.Turner put his views more succinctly: “The smart money is gonna rise, and the dumb asses are gonna fall by the wayside.” That observation drew applause from the gathered executives.

On the whole, the session featured little concrete discussion, centering on more philosophical issues that inspired Hindery to talk of the “spinning triangle” that represented the new industry harmony, and Diller to elaborate on the “swirl of activity” that is at the root of the cable business.

But Turner was still able to slip in a few punches on his favorite sparring partner, News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch. Asked by Brokaw about his arch-nemesis, Turner furrowed his brow, gestured menacingly and said, “I just want to get my hands on him.”

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